This past weekend I saw the movie "Won't Back Down" with Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhall. It was a movie about a poor working class mother who can't afford a private education for her child so must send her to the neighborhood school. That school is failing, her daughter is not learning, and she believes she has no options. As she agonizes over her situation, she finds out about a provision in the law that says that parents and teachers can "take over the school" by getting about 150 parental signatures and at least 18 teachers on board so they can create a Charter school in its place. Viola Davis plays a hard working and stifled teacher who's son has some learning disabilities but is also suffering some emotional distress due to problems in the Davis character's marriage. Gyllenhall's daughter has dyslexia and is placed in the classroom with the "worst" teacher in the school. Davis' character is the teacher who works with Gyllenhall to take over the school.
Both characters come together and go through an enormous amount of paperwork, beauracracy, and terrorizing by the teacher's union and school board in order to get a charter school approved for the next school year. They have two months. They both work diligently to get 150 parent signatures, (most of whom slam lots of doors in their faces) convince the teachers to sign on (who are scared of leaving the security of the union), and put together an over 400 page proposal with budget where, "all I's must be dotted, and T's be crossed!" Spoiler (but not really): they succeed. But of course you know they will or the feel good movie would not feel so good. The two crusaders go in front of the school board and….well in the theater it was a nail biter even though you knew what was going to happen.
My problem with this movie was not the overall feel of it. It really nailed the frustration of both parents and teachers with the school system and its lack of results for students. As I'm getting ready to put my child in her first days of 3rd grade what bothered me about the movie is this: if a parent can get all those signatures, make t-shirts for hundreds, and get teachers on board to change the school, couldn't she have started a seriously killer PTA?! If she was able to get over 150 parental signatures and have them come out for a televised march on the school, couldn't she get those very same parents to participate in the school culture itself and make changes that way? All before fomenting a coup d'etat in the hood? With all the time the Gyllenhall character spent outside the school getting those signatures, couldn't she have been in the classroom volunteering, setting up school breakfast or just helping around the school for whatever they needed? Perhaps if she had volunteered in the classroom or spent time with the teacher, she could have found either that the teacher could be worked with or through her perseverance and relationship with the school, found a way for her daughter to be transferred out. Schools actually do try to accommodate reasonable requests.
At my daughters school, which is by no means perfect, we have a strong PTA(though it could be larger). There are back to school nights about reading, math, science as well as the yearly talent show. There are fundraisers in each semester and a book fair to raise funds for the school for supplies, trips and assemblies. When I went in for the open house, I hugged my principal because she had just had a baby and she was glad to see me(as she addressed my concerns about my daughter's teacher who I had never heard of before).
Now I know for a fact that every school is not like my daughter's school. I have worked and been around inner city populations for many years, there are times when the school and the system need to be demonized…oh yea, they do. But in order to make the point of "not being able to wait" to make sure our children get the best education, this movie missed the obvious first steps:
- Parental involvement WITH the school FIRST through volunteering and participation in the PTA.
- Send the child to the school FED with nutritious meals, not pop tarts. This is why most inner city schools don't close during winter storms, sometimes its the only set of meals children get. Hungry kids have difficulty learning (the movie consistently showed the Gyllenhall character giving her child candy and a teacher giving her daughter a healthy meal)
- Work with your child to become HUMAN! Meaning: prepare them to listen as well as be heard, be respectful, have BOOKS IN YOUR HOUSE and maybe you and your children should read them,
- Respect what education can do for your child and believe your child's teacher has your child's best interests at heart at least 95% of the time.
Understand that teachers have to deal with bureaucracy and bull too. Teachers are under an enormous amount of pressure to essentially RAISE THIS COUNTRY'S CHILDREN. But they are not your children's parents!
So in closing about the movie…. I cried at the end. It was a really quite a moving story. We all want the best for our kids. But before we all start to scream,"The revolution will not be televised… in our schools!", we have to work with what's there FIRST. The teacher's union is made up of teachers who just don't want to be demonized and fired at will. Don't get me started about the insane evaluation process that teachers have to go through… There are real problems about the society at large that are interfering with our educational process. One of which is that we are always searching for innovation in this country without really seeing and supporting what has and will work. The other is we are not really interested in doing what is necessary as a culture to make sure that all our kids learn. Don't get it twisted, we know what works. We, America, just won't do it.